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Key Match-up: Aaron Donald vs. Patriots Interior OL

In this key match-up, we will take a look at All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams and his upcoming match-up against the Patriots interior offensive line.

For this week 13 match-up, we have the Los Angeles Rams (4-7) will travel to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots (9-2). While the Patriots are 13 points favorites in this game, there are definitely some parts/players on this Rams team that are ones not to take lightly- such as Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player in the NFL and is an absolute force along the middle of the Rams defensive line. Since coming into the league, Donald has been not only someone who causes disruption along the line of scrimmage, but he has shown elite ability to get behind the line and break up both run and pass plays frequently. Let’s take a deeper look at this match-up and how both sides stack up.

According to Pro Football Focus, Donald is the top ranked interior defensive lineman with a 95.7 overall grade (out of 100). He has a 86.8 run defensive grade (first) and a 96.4 pass defensive grade (first). Donald is also tied for the league lead in run stuffs (a tackle that causes a runner to either gain no yardage or lose yardage) with 10 and leads the NFL with 30 accumulated stuff yards (according to SportingCharts). Donald is also second in the NFL with 10 hurries (when a defender hurries a quarterback into making a throw) as well (also according to SportingCharts). To summarize, Donald seems nearly unstoppable against either the run or the pass.

Looking at the Patriots interior offensive line (left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason), it has had its ups and downs this season. Andrews ranks 29th among 37 eligible centers overall (72.7) while Mason is 23rd (78.3) and Thuney is 32nd (75.0) among 80 eligible guards, according to Pro Football Focus. They have been part of a solid group overall, which has been able to play together for most of the season together, which was a problem last season. The Patriots have been successful on offense this season, with the sixth most offensive yards (386.2) and points per game (26.6) this season.

Arguably their biggest test of the season as a unit will be facing Donald. Despite being “under-sized” for a defensive tackle, Donald is able to balance that with almost every other trait he has as a player. He is notorious for beating not only single but double team blocks with either his strength or finesse rush moves. Donald has elite hand usage, which allows him to shed blocks easier and know how to use upper-body leverage better. In addition, Donald is so quick at the snap, which allows him to gain a quick and powerful first step against his opposition.

For the Patriots unit, it will take more than one of them to hopefully adequately slow down Donald. We will likely see Donald line up either directly on Andrews over center or in the “A” gap in between Andrews and either Mason or Thuney. This will likely call for the Patriots to use an extra blocker likely (a tight end) on whatever side the ball is going towards, especially on run plays. Donald will obviously look to be as close to the ball as possible, so making sure adequate protection is there will be key against someone of Donald’s caliber.

With Donald’s speed and ability to shed blocks quickly, the group of Andrews, Mason and Thuney will need to make sure they react right at the snap of the ball. If they don’t, Donald could have a field day in the Patriots backfield all day. Negating his hand use and ability to use leverage to his advantage will be key as well. Pad level will be key here, making sure that they make leverage their advantage. Keeping yourself lower than your blocking assignment is one way to negate their effect as much. Because Donald is in the middle of the field, the Patriots will have a harder time trying to knock him out of the equation by calling plays to where they won’t be.

Of course, the Patriots likely won’t win every battle in the trenches with Donald and he will find his way into the backfield during the game. On pass plays, the team will need to try and make sure they have a running back in the back-field to try and buy Brady more time, if possible. With Brady’s knee, which was shown to be an issue especially when moving around the pocket or scrambling, that works to Donald’s advantage. Unfortunately for the Patriots, between Dion Lewis and James White, the team’s primary pass-catching/third down backs, neither are too strong in the pass-blocking category.

Another way for the Patriots to try and limit Donald’s effectiveness, especially in the run game, is to utilize James Develin more of a lead blocker. If Develin along with offensive line blocking could help buy whoever is running the ball adequate time for a hole to open or a block to formulate, it’ll be a much easier day overall. So even if Donald is able to beat a single/double block, Develin can be another level of defense in his way. Of eligible fullbacks, Develin is actually the top rated in run blocking (82.7) per PFF.

Overall, it will ultimately take a team effort for the Patriots to try and stop Donald from wreaking havoc on them. But the first and most important line of defense will be the Patriots interior offensive line unit. Being quick off the snap, using leverage and double teams will be the keys for the Patriots to win this battle in the trenches. It will a battle to watch all day as it could have a big impact on the Patriots offense throughout the game.